Tallahassee, QUARTERLY REVIEW OF BIOLOGY, Volume 84.4 Dec. 2009
Frederick R. Davis, History, Florida State University,Tallahassee
With the debate between Richard Owen and Thomas Huxley on the differences between the ape and human brains as its focus, this book explores some of the ways in which philosophical ideas and scientific practice influenced the discussion of evolution in the years before and after Darwin's publication of Origin of Species in 1859. It also shows how this episode can
With the debate between Richard Owen and Thomas Huxley on the differences between the ape and human brains as its focus, this book explores some of the ways in which philosophical ideas and scientific practice influenced the discussion of evolution in the years before and after Darwin's publication of Origin of Species in 1859. It also shows how this episode can shed light on current philosophical notions of scientific practice and how they in turn influence our understanding of the history of science. The book advances the current historical discussion of the Owen–Huxley debate by making clear that Owen's anatomical claims had much more support than most historians and philosophers of science assume.
One vital way Owen and Huxley differed in their approach to anatomy was how they handled absolute brain size. Owen argued that because the average human brain size was more than double the size of the record ape brain, absolute brain size distinguished humans from apes. Huxley by contrast, argued that because you can find a hippocampus minor in both ape and human brains, there was no great difference. In his 1863 book, Huxley had the artist make a human and chimpanzee brain the same length so that they appear similar size. But if the brain of a full grown chimpanzee is compared at the same scale with a fully grown human brain, the absolute brain size of human is as large as Owen insisted in the debate.
Owen’s Ape and Darwin’s Bulldog also seeks to explore differences in how Owen and Huxley approached racial issues in their debate as a case study on the interplay between values and laboratory science. Beginning in his 1835 paper and throughout the debate Owen maintained that all racial groups have similar brain sizes and intellectual abilities. By contrast, Huxley argued that African brains were intermediate between Europeans and apes: "if we place A, the European brain, B, the Bosjesman brain, and C, the orang brain, in a series, the differences between A and B, so far as they have been ascertained, are of the same nature as the chief of those between B and C."
Frederick R. Davis, History, Florida State University,Tallahassee
"Cosans's analysis is thought-provoking and informative, exemplifying an overall point that has been increasingly accepted: a scientist's interpretation of what s/he observes is best understood within its historic context." —Journal of Anthropological Research, Vol. 66, 2010
"In conclusion, the reviewer recommends this book strongly for all specialists and students, including palaeontologists and palaeoanthropologists." —Zentralblatt fur Geologie und Palaontologie, 11, 5/6, 2009
"Owen's Ape and Darwin's Bulldog introduces a brilliant, new and insightful perspective into the philosophy behind Richard Owen's methods and reasoning." —Evo Edu Outreach, 2010
"Part history of science, part history of philosophy, part philosophy of science—but all in the service of the pragmatic dimensions of science in society. I know of no other book quite like this one." —Jason Scott Robert, Arizona State University
"A fascinating new look at the Owen-Huxley controversy [that] gives us important insight into a hitherto thinly discussed aspect of the Darwinian Revolution. I much enjoyed reading it and learnt from virtually every page." —Michael Ruse, author of Darwinism and Its Discontents
Owen’s Ape and Darwin’s Bulldog sheds new light on one of the most celebrated episodes in the history of evolutionary biology. Cosans’s careful analysis draws on history, philosophy, and even his own dissections, to reveal a complexity hitherto underestimated.Frederick R. Davis, History, Florida State University,
Tallahassee, QUARTERLY REVIEW OF BIOLOGY, Volume 84.4 Dec. 2009
"In conclusion, the reviewer recommends this book strongly for all specialists and students, including palaeontologists and palaeoanthropologists." Zentralblatt fur Geologie und Palaontologie, 11, 5/6, 2009
"A fascinating new look at the Owen-Huxley controversy [that] gives us important insight into a hitherto thinly discussed aspect of the Darwinian Revolution. I much enjoyed reading it and learnt from virtually every page." Michael Ruse, author of Darwinism and Its Discontents
The Parable of the Hippopotamus Major
The professor, indeed, went further, and held that no man was forced to believe anything to be true, but what he could see, hear, taste, or handle. He held very strange theories about a good many things. He had even got up once at the British Association, and declared that apes had hippopotamus majors in their brains just as men have. Which was a shocking thing to say; for, if it were so, what would become of the faith, hope, and charity of immortal millions? You may think that there are other more important differences between you and an ape, such as being able to speak, and make machines, and know right from wrong, and say your prayers, and other matters of that kind; but that is a child's fancy, my dear. Nothing is to be depended on but the great hippopotamus test.
— Charles Kingsley, The Water-Babies
In The Water-Babies, a nineteenth-century fairy tale about science, religion, and truth, Charles Kingsley pictures for us Professor Ptthmllnsprts (figure 1.1). His name when vowels are added, Put-them-all-in-spirits, epitomizes laboratory science. In the laboratory, anatomists study life by preserving specimens so that they can be examined, analyzed, and dissected. They freeze and cut up the body so as to isolate the parts and materials that make it up. They then give to the parts they observe names and use words to describe the nature of the body. Professor Ptthmllnsprts attempts to rely entirely upon sensory perceptions to find truth. The only one of the traditional five Aristotelian senses Kingsley does not mention him using is smell, which perhaps fits with the extent to which anatomists must control their response to the level of olfactory stimulation they experience in the laboratory. Professor Ptthmllnsprts avoids the responses of the emotions in his efforts to give a value-free account of reality. Hence in comparing apes and humans he focuses entirely upon whether or not their brains have a structure called the hippopotamus major. Because he can find hippopotamus majors in the brains of both apes and humans, the professor concludes that chimpanzees and humans are kindred spirits.
In Kingsley's tale, the professor takes a little girl, Ellie, on a walk along the beach to teach her about life. Rather than paying attention to the beauty that draws people to the sea, the professor gives Ellie a science lesson. They collect various creatures with a net, and he teaches her their scientific names. Presumably once they get back to the laboratory the specimens will be preserved in spirits, labeled, and further analyzed. But Ellie finds this boring. She believes that there is more to reality than meets Professor Ptthmllnsprts's eyes. She does not worry very much about whether apes have hippopotamus majors in their brains. Ellie informs the professor that she would prefer to play with water-babies, which are the children that live in the sea. She informs the professor that she knows about water-babies from a painting, which is so beautiful that it must be true. The professor wards Ellie away from such child's fancy. He believes that only sensory perception tells us if something is true.
Although Kingsley's fairy tale was first published in 1863, just four years after Darwin published the Origin of Species, the argument between the professor and Ellie is still with us today. Throughout society there is often a tension between those who have faith in science and technology and those who believe that there is more to reality than the things that can be written in technical textbooks. Technocratic and humanistic perspectives are at odds in many areas of American culture. We see this tension in different approaches taken by such social institutions as science and religion, industry and environmentalism, and even high school algebra and high school Shakespeare. One philosophical worldview that looks only to science for truth is scientific materialism, which defines reality in terms of matter. Scientific materialists hold that reality consists of matter, and that science with the aid of sensory perception can give us the "one true" description of it. Those who see limits to the worldview of science often take one of two different philosophical approaches. Social constructivists argue that all the opinions of scientists are merely reflections of their social and economic biases. Some embrace the postmodern idea that all opinions are equally valid and that there is no ultimate truth about anything. While social constructivism does point out limits to Professor Ptthmllnsprts's day at the beach, it would not be satisfactory to Ellie. She does not deny that science tells us true things, she just questions the belief that the sciences give us a complete description of everything that is real. Because the emotional senses that Ellie uses to find other aspects of reality, such as the sense of beauty, are developed and used by the various disciplines in the humanities, we can call Ellie's alternative to scientific materialism by the term "humanistic realism."
The Metaphysics of Scientific Materialism
The program of modern scientific materialism received much of its shape from Descartes, the seventeenth-century philosopher who is often heralded as a founder of modern philosophy. Most of us know of him from his phrase "I think, therefore I am," but he was also a major contributor to math and science. He advanced modern analytic geometry including the system of Cartesian coordinates that most of us learn in high school math class. His contribution to the philosophy of physics and biology was no less sweeping. He held that the natural world consists of matter, and he defined matter as "extension." A consequence of matter being essentially extension is that science can in principle offer a complete description of matter, and thus the natural world that is made up of matter, by means of mathematics as quantity. This was a major shift in science from the approach it had taken from the days of Aristotle. Aristotle believed that quantity was only one aspect of reality, and that qualities such as hot, cold, wet, dry, blue, and sweet were no less real. Today a Cartesian mathematical approach to nature is adopted by many scientists who describe aspects of the universe with such equations as PV = nRT, F = MA and E = MC2.
At a time when academics wrote works addressed only to each other in Latin, Descartes wrote several works in the popular language of French to explain to the people of his day the philosophical basis of the scientific revolution. In a work called Discourse on the Method for Rightly Conducting One's Reason and for Seeking the Truth in the Sciences he argues for the metaphysical independence of matter from mind. Our bodies, Descartes believed, are entirely material, entirely distinct from our conscious mind, and in fact operate entirely by material principles. He claims that truth can be found by following the four rules: (1) only accept clear and distinct ideas as true; (2) analyze problems into as many parts as possible; (3) begin analysis by studying the simplest objects and using that knowledge to understand the complex objects that they make up; and (4) make a scientific account of something so complete that it omits no details (1637, 11). With Descartes's rules we see the origins of an ambition of modern science to obtain a "complete description" of reality. Since Descartes wrote about science in the early seventeenth century, spectacular advances in science and technology have so impressed many people that they believe that science indeed gives us a complete description of reality and that all the purported insights of such enterprises as painting, religion, and poetry can be dismissed as illusions.
Descartes articulates the metaphysical foundations for his complete version of natural science in part 5 of the Discourse. There he illustrates how nature can be studied mechanically by going to great lengths to argue that the heart, which most people saw as the seat of life, functions by the same principles as a clock, with the motion of the whole being a sum of the motion of its parts (1637, 26–31). Insofar as a clock maker can construct a device that moves by itself without being continuously pushed by some non-material principle, we can imagine that the heart beats without the presence of anything else such as an untouchable soul. Descartes offers a fuller vision of biology in his Treatise on Man (1662), in which he argues that the geometric framework of analysis can be applied to the body, and that all life activities of the body can be analyzed as the result of the shape and motion of its parts just as if the entire body were a machine (figure 1.3). In the book he describes in detail how a machine could be constructed that would mimic all the functions of the human being except consciousness, in order to make the case that the human body can be seen as a machine. In an effort to rid biology of the ghost of Aristotle, by entirely purging it of the Aristotelian concept of soul, Descartes concludes the Treatise by remarking:
it is not necessary to conceive of any vegetative or sensitive soul, or any other principle of movement or life, other than its blood and its spirits which are agitated by the heat of the fire that burns continuously in its heart, and which is of the same nature as those fires that occur in inanimate bodies. (1662, 169)
Within an animal or plant body there is no principle at work that we cannot observe in bodies that entirely lack life. Nearly a century later, in 1748, a French physician, Julien de La Mettrie, published his Man a Machine that built on Descartes's mechanical approach but went further by arguing that all the activities of the mind including consciousness could be explained entirely as the result of bodily mechanisms (Channell 1991, 41).
While his philosophy provides a metaphysical framework for scientific materialism, it is important to note that Descartes himself was not a materialist. He would see materialism as only a half-philosophy. In addition to the matter of the body, he believed that living humans have an immaterial mind whose essence is "thinking" and which is separable from the body. This, however, raises the question of how an immaterial soul can interact with a material body, a puzzle which is known today as the mind-body problem.
In his discussion of scientific materialism, the philosopher Hilary Putnam calls it by the Kantian phrase "metaphysical realism." In the vocabulary of analytic philosophy, metaphysical realists believe that "the world consists of some fixed totality of mind-independent objects" (Putnam 1981, 49). The point is that in principle science could give a full description of all the things in the universe, without having to posit anything about a conscious observer or creator. The goal of science is to discover and name as many of these objects as possible. Science gives an account of things-in-themselves. A complete account of nature would describe how these things exist undisturbed by any observer; it would be from "a God's Eye point of view" (Putnam 1981, 49).
Scientific materialists might even describe our brain as if it consists of mind-independent objects. When studying the difference between ape and human brains, Professor Ptthmllnsprts focuses his attention on whether he can find the part that he calls the hippopotamus major. From the scientific materialist perspective the entire brain works like a clock with all its activity arising from the motions of its parts. None of these parts needs to have any thoughts or feelings about what it does. If the body is nothing but a machine, then we could describe how the brain detects objects in the environment, and directs behaviors of the body in response, entirely in terms of inputs and outputs. We would not need to worry about "what it feels like" for the brain to do this. When scientific materialists enter the laboratory, they distance themselves from human feelings and leave unscientific concepts like good, bad, right, wrong, ugly, and beautiful at the door. Professor Ptthmllnsprts's commitment to the metaphysics of science even undermines his faith in what he sees. Immediately after explaining to Ellie that science teaches that water-babies could not possibly exist, he catches one in his net. Unable to identify the water-baby as either a Holothurian or a Cephalopod, he allows it to escape, insisting to Ellie that she had seen a water-baby only in her imagination.
The Social Constructivist Critique of Science
Although it still has many believers, the perspective of scientists like Professor Ptthmllnsprts has come on hard times. In the 1950s philosophers argued that there is more involved in the scientific process than sense perception. Wittgenstein (1972), Quine (1951), and Hanson (1958) all argued that what a scientist observes involves not only his senses, but his conceptual framework as well. As Hanson puts it, there is more to seeing than meets the eye. Conceptual frameworks influence how a scientist construes experience. Such frameworks of analysis are networks of theoretical beliefs about what kinds of entities exist and how we come to know them.
In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn calls frameworks of analysis "paradigms" (1962). He argues that scientific training socializes scientists into a paradigm to such an extent that it defines their reality. Kuhn argues that during scientific revolutions an old paradigm is replaced by a new one. Since each paradigm has its own rules for defining reality, however, no paradigm is "more true" than another paradigm. Two paradigms are just different or, to use Kuhn's term, "incommensurable." Two different paradigms on Kuhn's view do not even share a common way of deciding which one has the best method for establishing the truth of their theories. Scientists who have different paradigms might try to argue about the same thing, but they would be talking past each other because their theories would be incommensurable. There is no way to strictly compare Aristotle's theory that the sun "moves" around the Earth with Copernicus's theory that the Earth "moves" around the sun, because both scientists do not mean the same thing by "motion."
Social constructivist historians and philosophers have taken analyses like that of Kuhn to provide a basis for claiming that a scientist's socio-economic interests are the most important factors determining the scientist's opinions. If paradigms determine what a scientist sees, a scientist can see anything if he or she wants to see it badly enough to construct an appropriate paradigm. If economic interests shape what a scientist desires, then they will also shape what he or she sees. The scientist behaves like a black box that produces whatever scientific writings will advance his or her cultural, political, and/or economic interests. In The Politics of Evolution, for example, Adrian Desmond argues that "'reality' construction is an active, socially constrained process" (Desmond 1989, 22). He castigates old internalists who "wrenched science from its social context and wrote ghostly histories of disembodied ideas" (1989, 21).
In assuming that ideas are determined by socio-economic interests, social constructivists like Desmond often de-emphasize the importance of a scientist's conceptual reasons for having beliefs in favor of his or her political interests. When Desmond asks why various theories of evolution were attractive to certain British scientists in the 1830s, for example, he asserts:
By their very nature, these outcast forms of evolution require a social understanding. Nothing less can give us an insight into their meaning or hint at the reasons they were so attractive to aggrieved groups. We need to ask new sorts of questions. How could evolution have furthered a group's ends in a rapidly urbanizing, industrializing society? (Desmond 1989, 4–5)
Excerpted from Owen's Ape & Darwin's Bulldog by Christopher E. Cosans. Copyright © 2009 Christopher Cosans. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Christopher E. Cosans teaches philosophy at Indiana University–Purdue University Fort Wayne.
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